Couch to North Channel Training Swim: Bainbridge Island

I’ve spent the last week since this training swim recovering, caring for a sick pup (who toxified himself on my unopened post-swim dark chocolate toffee bar, that he had to get onto the counter to find), making saran wrap party prize balls for end-of-the-year speech therapy celebrations, creating certificates for students moving on to the upper elementary school next fall, and trying to mentally structure my Bainbridge swim into a coherent blog post that contains the most important details.

Today it occurred to me that I should write this post as a SOAP note. I wrote SOAP notes after speech clinic sessions in graduate school, and for medicaid billing when I worked with the birth-to-three population. I don’t remember the last one I wrote, but the format is an easy fall-back for me, and I think it will help me organize all the thoughts that have been randomly drifting through my mind since the swim.

Previously, I’ve discussed my funny looking facial tans and sunburns from my swim cap, and I want to take a moment before I start my SOAP note to thank Dr. Lyons, who retired this last Thursday, her staff from Kaiser Dermatology, and all my friends and family who have been sending me positive vibes these past few weeks.

I saw Dr. Lyons several weeks ago for a suspicious mole near my ear. She conducted a whole body skin examination (only politely encouraging me to wear tights and a rash guard for long swims, rather than lecturing me on my swimming tan lines and patches of sunburn from the 20 mile training swim two days before), and agreed that the spot by my ear was atypical in appearance (fortunately that was the only unusual spot). She graciously worked with me, taking into consideration all my upcoming swim dates, to schedule the best time for a biopsy. I went in Tuesday morning, the day after returning from Bainbridge (giving Clarence the opportunity to eat my chocolate toffee bar). Two days later, I received an email from her office. The nevus was benign.  The message also read, “I hope that it is healing well and that she succeeds at her next big swim!” I never imagined I would have so much support from a dermatology department in addition to my own M.D’s medical office. Especially when I am likely a dermatologist’s worst nightmare (fair skin, blue eyes, blonde hair).

Ok. here it goes. Bainbridge Island…

S.  After a 3:30am alarm, weather app check (forecast mostly cloudy with a high of 69 degrees on Bainbridge Island), a hard boiled egg, slice of cheese, banana, and some beet juice for breakfast, my swim officially started at 5:47am Sunday, May 26th, as I stood above the water line on the left side of Bainbridge, Island’s Skiff Point Pier. The plan was to swim counter-clockwise around the island and exit the water to the right of the Pier to finish.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat’s me covered with Desitin after swimming from the boat to the starting point.

On board the support boat were: Andrew Malinak (Pilot and safety plan creator extraordinaire); Maryl Carow (Crew Member, who spent many Sunday mornings this winter helping me warm up after acclimating swims in the Columbia River and Hagg Lake); Margot McKirdy (Crew Member and the first Oregon Wild Swimmer I ever met, who welcomed me to the club, back in May, 2017); Tiernan (Safety Crew/son, who won’t make my North Channel swim later this month, but as a teen in today’s culture, needed to experience an off-screen adventure, and see what hard work and practice looks like); Melissa Nordquist (Official Observer, who I didn’t get to chat with much during the swim, but she received rave reviews from Margot and Maryl).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATiernan and me on the boat leaving Elliott Bay Marina to Skiff Point Pier for swim start.

O: Overall, the weather was mostly sunny. The sky became cloudy completely obscuring my view of any blueness and the sun, during the Rich Passage section of the swim. Once I escaped the passage, the sun eventually reappeared. The water temperature at the start was 51 degrees Fahrenheit. It rose to a high of 55F on the west side of the island, and then dropped to a low of 48 degrees in Rich Passage at the south end of the island. I quit counting the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish after 24, which I saw prior to entering Rich Passage. There were also many Moon Jellies and Egg Yolk Jellies. The water felt fairly calm for the majority of the swim (e.g., significant less chop in comparison to windy Hagg Lake training swims). I was told before I exited the water, that I swam 23 miles in 12 hours and 23 minutes, and that I still had four more miles to go to get back to Skiff Point Pier.IMG_0032

Map of swim. Sorry it’s a screen shot. I’m not sure how long the link to the website will stay active.

I’m under the blue blanket lying on the floor between Maryl and Andrew, shivering and chattering, out of the wind on return crossing to Elliott Bay Marina

A: Several weeks ago, Cindy Werhane, my Oregon Wild and Yeti mentor, who just finished swimming 20 Bridges around Manhattan Island yesterday, asked me, “What is your why for swimming the North Channel?” I said, “to have fun, and I want to see if I can.” She laughed and responded with, “I don’t think anyone would say swimming the North Channel is fun!” I definitely enjoyed this swim. It was evident to my crew, as Maryl told everyone on the boat at one point out of my ear shot that, “Rijl is in her happy place.” Later during a feed, I told Margot to let Cindy know, “I’m having a blast!”

Water Conditions: I had fantastic surface water conditions with few choppy sections. I may not be so lucky in the North Channel, but thanks to very windy days at Hagg Lake this spring, I feel prepared to handle less favorable surface conditions. I am still concerned about the jellyfish though. Although I saw many, I don’t think I directly hit one. I did swim through knots of brown seaweed (one in particular caused a moderate pins and needles sensation on my forearm for many hours) that may have obscured tentacles and other unpleasant biting/stinging creatures. All week, I’ve been treating half a dozen suspicious, penny-sized patches of little red, itchy bumps on my stomach with antihistamine cream. I have no idea what caused them, but as far as I know, I avoided all direct encounters with jellies (however, I may not have noticed when cognitive functions waned. Read below).

Distance: I was told, when I was offered the opportunity to stop, that I had swam 23 miles and had four miles to go to completely circumnavigate the island. The North Channel is 21.8 miles. Now that I’ve swam 22-23 miles (the tracker recorded 22.3 miles) with a remainder of physical energy, I feel confident that I can swim the distance between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Physical Ability: Prior to reaching the half-way point, both rotator cuffs and the back of my left knee (at the joint) hurt. I took a feed bottle that had a dose of children’s liquid Ibuprofen and once I reached the coldest water, my shoulder joints were no longer sore. The back of my knee did continue to hurt, and soon both quads became extremely cold, rigid, and painful. As I neared the exit of the passage, my thighs started to shiver uncontrollably and remained sore until I woke up Tuesday morning. I never cramped and my shoulders and back felt strong the entire swim, with minimal second day soreness. The only physical side effect that lingered all week and that I am continuing to monitor, has been the sensation of a constriction or weight mid-chest. The morning after the swim, I began to have difficulty breathing when I rolled onto my side in bed. Once up and moving around, I became easily winded doing stairs and bending down to pick up bags off the floor. It felt effortful to fully inhale and expand my lungs until Thursday, when I swam at sunset with Margot. I couldn’t fully inhale at that time while side breathing when swimming freestyle. I ended up alternating breaststroke and backstroke with long treading water breaks (I continued to breathe more quickly and feel winded). My oxygen reading at Kaiser Tuesday morning was 100%. A week post-swim, I still have a mild sensation (incomparable to any feeling I’ve ever experienced) around my sternum when I inhale deeply. I’m waiting for this to subside completely before I swim again. Once it has improved, and I can comfortably breathe bilaterally again, I’ll have more confidence in my physicality for the channel.

Temperature: The 51 degree water temperature at dawn felt manageable for a complete island circumnavigation. I asked not to be informed of the water temperature, but I have a decent internal thermometer gauge from experience. I knew when swimming in Rich Passage, the water was in the upper forties. I pushed through it, believing it would warm again on the east side of the island, but it never really did. On a feed over half-way through the passage, I told everyone on the boat “I’m cold.” Andrew “Woo-hoo!”-ed me at that point (thank you Andrew! In hindsight there was no better response, as I didn’t know how to respond. I just drank my feed on my back and kept going). On the next feed, Margot got in to swim with me. 30 minutes later, on the following feed (an hour after the first “I’m cold”) I again said, “I’m cold.” Margot (who seemed to be inches from my face in the water with me and apparently hadn’t heard me the first time) chimed in with, “listen, this is the first time you’ve said you’re cold. You’re going to keep going.” I tossed my feed bottle back and complied (thank you Margot). I haven’t seen the official observation record yet, but I have heard from everyone on board that my attitude and demeanor changed during Rich Passage (I wasn’t as cheerful or talkative on feed breaks). Once Margot got in the water with me, everything became hazy, and I’m not exactly sure what all happened. I recall that I could only focus on two things. 1. The cold (e.g., my painful, shivering thighs; wondering if all the blood supply below my knees was constricted to keep my core warm; just mentally trying to maintain the temperature of my core). 2. Where was that Seattle to Bainbridge Ferry Harbor? I was going to have to cross it and potentially hold beside it at some point to wait for the ferries to pass (In my head, once I crossed that ferry harbor, I was finished and that thought consumed me). 

I was always aware that Margot was with me, but I must have quit monitoring my pilot boat. I think I was suddenly all over the place. Initially, I was always between the shore and the boat. In my haze, I somehow ended up on the right side of the pilot boat (now between the boat and Seattle far to my right). I quit seeing and caring about the jellyfish, and apparently completely didn’t notice a shallow reef with choppy, churning water that Margot and I swam over. Margot eventually got back onto the boat, and I kept going. Around 3.5-4 hours after my first “I’m cold,” declaration, I still passed the cognitive questions the crew asked me (although I responded in an annoyed tone after lengthy wait times, and Tiernan told me later that my speech was barely intelligible), but when Margot asked me if I wanted to get out and be done, and after I asked how much longer until the finish, and was told it was four more miles, I said I was done and swam to the boat. Once out of the water, I warmed up relatively quickly (boat ride back to Elliott Bay of shivering and chattering) and easily, and the crew decided I probably had at least an hour in that cold still in me. Apparently I was out of hot water though as one 2 qt. thermos had been left in the car so there was no way I had sufficient warm feeds to continue. Infinity Channel Swimming provides five, two quart thermoses, which they say is sufficient for most swimmers. I had six on the boat, but some of my hot water was used to warm up the crew. In any case, I will need more than five thermoses for the channel and the crew will never ask me if I want to be finished. In total, I was in the cold Puget Sound (with the lowest water temperatures six degrees colder than the posted temps of the North Channel) for 12 hours and 23 minutes. I feel like my ability to handle the cold is my biggest strength at this time. The channel may be close to feeling balmy after this Bainbridge attempt. Let’s hope!

P: Rock my North Channel swim.                      

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